- Southern Religion and Christian Diversity in the Twentieth Centuryby Wayne Flynt
Southern Religion and Christian Diversity in the Twentieth Centuryis a collection of fifteen essays by Wayne Flynt, distinguished university professor emeritus at Auburn University. Flynt, one of the most important southern historians of the last half of the twentieth century, can boast an impressive collection of honors, including authorship or co-authorship of thirteen books, two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize, and serving as founding editor-in-chief of the online Encyclopedia of Alabama, to mention only a few.
Southern Religion and Christian Diversity in the Twentieth Centuryis the fruit of a lifetime of research and thought. Although Flynt asserts that the "thesis" is that "southern religion is more complicated than it seems," this is less a thesis than a theme that runs through these essays.
The essays look at southern religion from denominational (Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians), geographical (Alabama, Florida, and Appalachia), and topical (social gospel, organized labor, and women) viewpoints.
All of these essays are worth reading, pondering, and re-reading, but two stood out even more than the others, illustrate Flynt's theme.
The first essay, "Growing up Baptist in Anniston: The Legacy of the Rev. Charles R. Bell, Jr.," is a brief biography of a renegade Baptist pastor. Bell was pastor of Parker Memorial Baptist Church in Anniston, Alabama, from 1932 to 1944. To say the least, Bell exemplified "Christian diversity." During a six-month sabbatical, he met and talked with both Mohandas Gandhi and Japanese Christian leader, Toyohiko Kagawa. Both men profoundly influenced Bell. His visit with Gandhi undoubtedly strengthened Bell's belief in non-violence; from Kagawa Bell acquired a belief in co-operative (some would say socialist) principles. Unlike even many otherwise liberal southern religious leaders, Bell both preached and practiced racial inclusivity. What finally forced Bell to leave Parker Memorial, however, was his refusal to have an American flag in the church's sanctuary.
Another essay that stands out is "'A Special Feeling of Closeness:' Mt. Hebron Baptist Church, Leeds, Alabama." This essay (published in 1994) is an exceptionally close study of a small rural church founded in 1819. Like Flynt's essay about the Rev. Charles Bell, this study also usefully "complicates" typical assumptions [End Page 586]about southern religion. The Rev. Fred E. Maxey, a lawyer and former labor negotiator, served as Mt. Hebron's pastor from 1935 to 1945. Maxey "divided men and women into separate groups and talked to them about marriage, relationships, and sex … [teaching them that] God intended sex to be a joyous and wonderful part of life" (p. 229). Maxey "spoke at communist rallies, wrote for the local communist paper, and may have been a party member himself. Older members of the congregation remember Maxey not as a dangerous radical but as a beloved pastor who helped them obtain jobs and ministered to them in their suffering. His efforts for them (and on behalf of unemployed black members of the community) earned him a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning but also rallied his members to a sense of sacred meaning and community" (p. 248).
Flynt's scholarship is outstanding, and there is little to criticize in this book. However, because its central concerns are Southern culture and evangelicalism, it would have been helpful to define their main features early in the book. Flynt does offer a definition of evangelicalism in chapter 9 ("One in the Spirit, Many in the Flesh: Southern Evangelicals"), but it is highly idiosyncratic. Flynt identifies five characteristics of evangelicalism: democracy, individualism, the centrality of conversion, emotionalism, and a "preoccupation with original sin and guilt." Most scholars of evangelicalism would add crucicentrism, that is, the centrality of the cross in Christian theology. But most surprising is that Flynt omits the centrality of the Bible. A democratic church polity is by no means universal in evangelical churches, and emotionalism is characteristic of many evangelicals but certainly not all.